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Climate Change Will Degrade Drinking Water Quality in the Midwest

Climate change has many different consequences, one of which is the likelihood that there will be more extreme shifts between droughts and floods — a weather pattern typically referred to as 'weather whiplash' by climatologists.

A new study conducted by scientists from the University of Kansas, which was recently published in the scientific journal Biogeochemistry, reveals how weather whiplash in the agricultural regions of the American Midwest will cause drinking water quality to deteriorate, which will in turn force municipalities to find costly water treatment solutions in order to provide consumers with safe drinking water.


According to the study, due to the predicted climate change related change in rainfall patterns, it is anticipated that in future the frequency of droughts and flooding will increase. The extreme seesawing between periods of extremely low rainfall and periods of extremely high rainfall changes how nutrients are stored in agricultural soils — particularly nitrogen used in fertilizers applied to agricultural crops.

"Farmers put on their normal amount of fertilizer, but when we have a drought, plants don't grow as big and don't take up as much nitrogen," said Terry Loecke, assistant professor of environmental studies at the University of Kansas and lead author of the study.

Rather than being taken up by plants, which are then harvested, the nitrogen remains in soils as there is no water to flush it away. Then when heavy rains fall, the soil — which acts like a sponge — releases nitrogen, which flows into streams and rivers with runoff.

As many of these freshwater systems serve as an important source of drinking water for many communities across the Midwest, taxpayers are going to have to dig deeper into their pockets as the cost of building additional remedial treatment facilities to address high nitrogen levels is going to be high.

The research team analyzed data from the 2012-2013 drought/flood cycle that impacted most of the American Midwest, resulting in elevated nitrogen levels in rivers and lakes in the region. They found the link between high nitrate levels and extreme fluctuations in rainfall was quite common.

Due to the rapid rise in nitrate levels in the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers , the Des Moines Water Works was forced to build a new nitrate removal facility at a cost of US$4.1 million, which costs a further $7,000 a day to run.

Amy Burgin, co-author of the study, points out that nitrates pose a considerable problem in drinking water, particularly in Des Moines, home to probably the most costly nitrate removal plant around. Over the last few years the plant has been operating anywhere between 25 to 150 days or more each year, which is proving to be extremely expensive as they don't have the funds available in their budget allocated for getting clean drinking water to consumers.

In an attempt to recoup some of these additional denitrifications costs, the water utility recently sued several intensely farmed Iowa counties further upstream from city.  But Loecke and Burgin believe that surges in surface water nitrate levels like the ones affecting cities in Iowa will become more widespread across the agricultural Midwest due to the phenomenon of weather whiplash as this occurs more regularly in the future.

Loecke believes that consumers across the Midwest will soon have to pay more for safe drinking water, like those from Des Moines. Cities aren't able to determine how often they will need to operate a nitrate-removal plant. When it's run a lot, it's a knocks their budget hard, and they have to pass these costs on to their consumers, and this is likely to spread out across the rest of the Midwestern region. Midwestern consumers must therefore anticipate paying more for clean drinking water in future.

The authors hope that this study will help inform all those concerned, including the farming community, policymakers and municipal water departments, as well as consumers.

"Municipal water services should be paying attention," Burgin said. "Iowa is the bull's-eye of this problem, and it's going to spread out from there -- this might not be at the forefront of a lot of Kansas minds right now. But given it's an agricultural state, it's a matter of time before we're in same boat. In Iowa, now it's hitting smaller municipalities. According to analysis by the Des Moines Register, 30% of them will have this problem -- and most don't have the tax bases to support huge nitrate-removal facilities."

Journal Reference

Loecke, T.D., Burgin, A.J., Riveros-Iregui, D.A. et al. Biogeochemistry (2017) 133: 7. doi:10.1007/s10533-017-0315-z

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